Assault and Absence

Essay by Wim Nijenhuis for "TechnoMorphica," 1997

Assault and Absence

TechnoMorphica 1997

"It wasn't me" - Lou Reed

Assaults are directed against the safety of the state and against the life and honor of a legal persona. Assaults come with responsibility bearers. Always there is a search for a perpetrator. Only when one can freely dispose of one's own actions and if one has an adequate awareness of the context thereof, canone be held accountable. This is the thought underlying our judicial system, which eagerly manifests itself in the confrontation with the responsible individual.

In the absence of a perpetrator, when there is no subjective center of a plan or strategy, we speak of accidents. An accident is like a perfect crime, because when there is no perpetrator there is no act in the legal sense of the word: remember the border-crossing radio-active cloud from Chernobyl.

Every act is unique. It is the exertion of a force, situated in place and time. However, in telecommunications the unity of place is multiplied. Tele-presence, that will enable acts to be performed from a distance through a robot, or that will operate through an influencing appearance at a distance (as in video-conferences), will jeopardize the possibility to determine the location of the assault. The perpetrator will always be "somewhere else" and an alibi is automatically provided. During one of the presentations of the installation "Telematic Dreaming" by Paul Sermon 1 dancer/philosopher Suzan Kozel lies on a bed in an adjacent room, surrounded by camera's and monitors. The actual installation is the projection of her body on a bed in the exhibition space. Visitors are invited to nestle themselves next to this second body, and then a more or less theatrical form of lovemaking can be gesticulated. Kozel tells about her experiences: after a while she was able to immerse herself in the act by letting her mind be present with the second body. However, when the partner acted violently, she quickly retreated her flowing self into her first body and continued the mise en scène as an eye witness.

1. "Telematic Dreaming" (1992) is a project by Paul Sermon. It confronts the public with two important aspects of telecommunication: physical presence and tele-presence.

These days crews of tanks and submarines practice in simulators where the reality content of battle is made as high as possible. It is to be expected that these simulations will be linked to reality, so the crews can be deployed without them realizing it's for real.

Tele-presence manipulates the location of the observer and the status of the acting person at the same time. Ultimately it leads to the hyper-visibility of the world and the absence of the agent/witness, as demonstrated by Kubrick in his film "Dr. Strangelove." These half-hearted absences are related to the characteristics of time. If the environment is real, the person is in the chronological and extensive time of the act and of the social setting. In the dreamlike state of the "eye witness" (an image of which was given by Wim Wenders' angels in "Der Himmel über Berlin") in a variation on death, we are dealing with a derealized environment and intensive time. Derealized environment and intensive time are characteristic of all communication and the bridging of distances in real-time; they accompany the departure out of this world. The cyberspace sect Heaven's Gate lived in an isolated, walled-off luxury neighborhood in Santa Fé, where neighbors neither saw or heard each other and therefore didn't know each other. The only reason for their collective suicide and subsequent departure from the earth was their dream of becoming eternal witnesses to the end of the world.

The first question a tele-present person will ask, is not: Who am I?, but: Where am I?, just like the first question when people meet in a teleconference is: Where are you? Interactivity makes location relative. Through the possibility of switching one is in provisional environments. Just like Heisenberg's particle a tele-acting being will be unsure about its location in space. The only certainty is the real-time connection.

Tele-presence will free us from responsibility. We can always claim our absence. Decreased absence will lead to increased social courage. Shyness has the future, because shyness to show oneself will become unnecessary by the operation of the equipment. The unreal environment in this way corresponds to a new form of death: not anymore the big sleep, unconsciousness and immobility, but the unfolding of a force at the peak of human impotence. Where humane power regresses to point zero, violence is given free reign.

In order to survive we distinguish between our direct environment and the representations we make of it. One step up in complexity is the skill to distinguish what we hold to be real and true from how someone else sees this. Thanks to this second skill we can see the world through the eyes of the other and act accordingly. In this case we are not directed by a reality but by the reality effect of the conveyed representation. This "natural" form of communication occurs within a shouting distance and a field of vision that frame our imagination in a social context. With electronic media an immeasurable distance is created, eliminating an important condition for "natural" communication. It now becomes possible for isolated individuals and communities to conceive of dreams as reality. On the heels of this the mediatized information complex brings us synthetic illusions dragging along a desperate tourism in their wake. Half dressed and without luggage the shabby Albanians landed on the hostile coast of the Mezzogiorno, one of the European Community's most backward regions. One of them cited the following reason for their migration: on Italian television he had seen a cat drinking milk from a silver plate. "If that's how they treat animals over there, what a paradise it must be for people." The majority of these "tourists" were transferred to the Stadio della Vittoria where they were told that from there they would be transported to the promised land, the United States. Happily they boarded the plane, which flew them straight back to Albania. In 1997, when Albanian immigration has caused a political crisis, the Italian prime minister Prodi offers to restore the context: "We'll go to Albania to give the Albanians the concrete support they need to be able to lead normal lives in their own country."

With the rise of biological science in the 18th century the classical world of representation and taxonomic classification was abandoned. Geoffroy Saint Hilaire: "The physique becomes an abstract being ... that can assume all kinds of forms." 2

2. Quoted by Th. Cahn, "La Vie et l'oeuvre d'E Geoffroy Saint Hilaire," Parijs, 1962, p. 138.

Biologist Cuvier subjugated the location of the organ to the sovereignty of its function: the attention "should be focused rather on the functions themselves than on the organs." 3

3. G. Cuvier, "Leçons d'anatomie comparée," Baudouin, Paris, 1799, d.I p. 63.

This primacy of function creates new relations, i.e. co-existence, internal hierarchy and dependency on the "organizing project." These principles were first applied to animal and human organisms but were soon transferred to other forms of "organization" such as the factory and traffic. The formal unity of the human body was lost in favor of a division in useful and useless capacities. The renewed constellations of machines and human parts that were a result of this, can be described as transhuman assemblages of useful organs and machine parts that conjointly have a new (better) function. The infrastructure of behavior was then placed within the organized whole, resulting in metempsychosis, the transmigration of the soul. An educational film on Fordism in the post-war years shows workers and robots, alternately placed on the assembly line. The biological workers, together with the robots and hardly distinguishable from them in this respect, are in a perfectly timed rhythmic cadence, a "work dance," a "bio-stroke," analogous to four-stroke and two-stroke engines.

In traffic the soul is somewhere between the driver and the numerous "functions" that surround the road, like traffic signs, traffic lights, the car radio, traffic police, automatic equipment for speed control and helicopters in the air. Just like the body of the worker in the Ford factories, the driver becomes a function, a decoding machine of signs and control unit of the vehicle. This function is dependent on the "organizing project" and "forces" are exerted on it constantly. A decade ago I drove my recently acquired Peugeot 504 (two liter engine, top speed 180 kilometers an hour) that replaced my Saab 96 (two-stroke, top speed 110 kilometers an hour) along a very straight and rather well-dimensioned approach road into the city of Delft. I had placed all my trust in the guarding powers of the road system and in my own subliminal ability to intercept its signals and automatically and adequately respond to these. But apparently my nervous system was still being controlled by the phantom operation of my loyal Saab in which I had after all traveled some 30.000 kilometers across Europe. In short, I was driving too fast. Seduced by the panoramic quality of the road, the straightness of this particular stretch, the absence of other traffic and the subliminal comfort of the Peugeot, I had entered a state of dreamlike absence that the information power of the speed limit sign was unable to penetrate. Speeding ticket! "You have the right to be heard in court." I wrote an elaborate defense, claiming I could not be held accountable for this violation since it was the logical effect of the information reality of this road. In my view its design dimensions suggested I was still outside of the city limits, on a country road. In my opinion the designers of the road and of the traffic signs should be dragged into court. The answer: "You are obliged to see and recognize traffic signs and to respond appropriately." My next defense was: "If I would be constantly on the look-out for more or less hidden traffic signs, I would be unable to watch other traffic or my speedometer." The answer: "You are obliged to see and recognize traffic signs and to respond appropriately." End of discussion. The conclusion: law individualizes us, where the organizing project is insisting from everywhere around us that we give up our responsibility.


© 1997 Wim Nijenhuis / V2_

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